Drink Hot Chocolate, Remember More??

Well … kind of, but not really. I wish it were that easy, but I’m still pretty jazzed about this new study out of Columbia.

Warning: This is a small study and the theory needs to be tested on a larger population, but if you are like me, and feel you are slowly losing your memory — along with your mind most days — this should give you hope.

Aside from more serious conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia, almost all adults start to suffer from degree of memory loss as they age. The degeneration is linked to a specific part of the brain called the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus.

memory loss, cocoa

Credit: Lab of Scott M. Small

It was hypothesized flavanols could improve the function of the dentate gyrus. Flavanols are found in the cocoa bean, chocolate, some teas, vegetables and fruit — grapes, blueberries, apples. Half the study group, which ranged in age from 50-69, drank a special beverage with a high concentration of flavanol extracted directly from the raw cocoa bean plant each day. The other half were given a regular chocolate drink. At the end of 3 months, both imaging studies of the brain and memory tests showed an improvement in the memory function of the group which drank the flavanol drink.

cocoa beansFlavanols are also thought to be beneficial for cardiovascular health. With all the extra chocolate in your house with Halloween on the way, you may be thinking you have a great excuse to gorge yourself on Hershey’s products. Unfortunately, the amount of flavanol found in processed chocolate won’t do you much good. This may be a blessing because you will probably want to forget how many you ate anyway.

The good news is there may be a nutritional supplement coming down the pipeline to make memory loss due to aging not so inevitable. It likely won’t be soon enough to help me remember what everyone wants for Christmas, but it may someday help me remember my grandchildren’s names. That would be nice, because at my current rate of memory loss, I’ll be lucky if I can remember the last time I showered.

If you want to test your memory, see if you can remember the parts of the brain mentioned in this post. I had my 15 year med school reunion last weekend and one of my Neuroanatomy professors was there. She is a lovely woman, but just thinking about that class gave me chills. If you did remember, you are one step ahead of the game. Speaking of games, mind games, reading, engaging your brain, eating well and staying active are all great ways to fight memory loss. Hot chocolate would be so much simpler, right?

hot chocolate

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Commercial Shows How We Keep Our Daughters Down

When my girls complain they “hate science,” it actually makes me cringe. Somehow, somewhere, science became a guy thing, and girls were directed to daintier pursuits, like typing, dieting and cupcake baking. Maybe it is all those big, bad chemicals with hard to decipher two letter codes, or those dangerous bunsen burners, or the smell of formaldehyde while a dissection is splayed open, or the possibility of getting dirty, but whatever it is, girls shy away from some of the most interesting, useful, diverse and rewarding careers, because they “hate science.” That’s like saying, “I hate food,” by the way. There are so many different branches of science, I’d argue it is impossible to hate them all.

I just came across this Verizon commercial, and I must share. What messages are we sending our girls from their first steps? Do we encourage them to explore, create and question or are we too busy telling them how beautiful they are? Take a look, and the next time you tell your daughter, “You are pretty,” add “amazing” to the end of that sentence.


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Turns Out: Rapid Weight Loss Maybe Ain’t So Bad

A study published in The Lancet last week states,
Weight Loss: slow and steady does not win the race.”

I hate when I’m wrong! I’ve always agreed with the common thinking that if you lose weight slowly, you will be less likely to put the weight back on. When it comes to college reunions, important work events and weddings, I said, “Go for it. Starve yourself, slim down, look great, but know you are probably going to put the weight back on.”  This new study, out of Australia, looked at people who lost weight in just 12 weeks and compared them with people who lost the same percentage of body weight in 36 weeks. After 3 years, both groups gained about 70% of the weight back. To further disprove the theory shedding pounds fast is bad, 80% of those in the rapid weight loss category reached their target weight, while only 50% of those trying to lose weight more gradually, met their goal.

What does this tell us?

First, it is only one study, so don’t go on a starvation diet just yet.

Second, it is extremely difficult to keep weight off, no matter how long it takes you to lose it, so focusing on healthier nutrition and exercise habits is better than focusing on the numbers on the scale.

Third, there is no quick and easy answer to weight loss. Move more, eat less.

Fourth, similar to an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, not letting your weight get out of hand in the first place will help you avoid the roller coaster diet ride. My grandmother, who died this year at 97 years old, gave me great advice. “Eat well, but don’t make yourself crazy. Pay attention to your body and as soon as you feel like your clothes are getting a little tight, spend a week or two eating less and exercising more. It is easier to lose five pounds than ten.”

Fifth, for me, this study underscores the importance of teaching our kids good eating habits from the get go. Instilling in them a healthy relationship with food is the best way to ensure they grow up without weight and health struggles, which can lead to both psychological and physical illness.

Quotes about weight loss:

“Dear stomach. You are bored, not hungry, so shut up.”

“Do not reward yourself with food. You are not a dog.” 

“If you are tired of starting over, stop giving up.”

“I’m not losing weight. I’m getting rid of it. I have no intention of finding it again.”

“I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy, I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.”

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Parents: How Worried Should You Be About Enterovirus D68?

I picked my five kids up at their schools today, and the car was unusually quiet. On any other day, they are fighting for my attention, speaking over each other and generally rowdy with pent up energy from sitting in school all day. “It’s too peaceful in here. What’s wrong?” I asked. Each had a mild, physical complaint, from sore throat, to headache to “I’m just really tired today.” The little ones, who go to preschool, have a runny nose and a mild cough. I’ve noticed some of their classmates with the same symptoms.

This is about what you’d expect if we had a benign cold virus making its way through our home. It wouldn’t be the first time we all had a “touch of something”, and I normally am not prone to worry. However, this is the first time they are all under the weather with enterovirus D68 making its way around the country. Here in New Jersey, we are living in the tragic shadow of the death of a four-year old boy from this particularly virulent enterovirus. Eli Waller’s parents put him to bed with symptoms of pink eye, and he passed overnight. It’s a parents’ worst nightmare, and as we pray for the Wallers, we can’t help but put ourselves in their shoes. Can this happen to me? Can it be prevented? What should I know about this virus?

Enteroviruses usually cause run of the mill upper respiratory illnesses or colds. The EV-D68 strain has been diagnosed in over 600 people in the U.S. this year, and is implicated in four deaths to date. Between this and Ebola, you may be thinking of quarantining your family. I can’t blame you. The reports are frightening, especially for parents. The best you can do is to be informed and stay vigilant, but remain calm.

Enteroviruses are spread the same as any cold virus – through saliva and mucous. People become infected when they touch a contaminated surface and bring the virus to their eyes, nose or mouth. Anyone can be infected with EV-D68, but children and those who are immunosuppressed are most likely to have severe symptoms. Kids, because they have not yet built up an immunity to many viruses, the immunosuppressed because they can’t fight off the illness. Because this is a respiratory infection, people with pre-existing respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, are at greater risk of becoming severely ill. There is no specific treatment for EV-D68, and patients are treated with supportive care and on a symptom by symptom basis.

Initial mild symptoms usually include runny nose, sneezing, coughing, body aches and fever. Severe symptoms include wheezing and difficulty breathing.

Bottom line, you don’t need to lie in bed awake at night anxious about EV-D68, but you should be worried enough to do the following:

-       stress to your children how important it is to avoid spreading germs

  • encourage frequent hand washing
  • instruct them to cough and sneeze into their elbow
  • teach them to avoid touching their face, especially around the mouth and nose
  • tell them not to share drinks, lip balm or utensils with other children


-       be vigilant about signs of respiratory distress, especially if your child has asthma or has had breathing problems in the past

  • look for:
    • fever or rash
    • increased rate of breathing
    • increased fatigue
    • use of muscles in the shoulders and chest during breathing
    • wheezing or noisy breathing


-       If you have infants, young children, or children with asthma, be mindful of their contact with individuals who have cold or flu symptoms. Encourage anyone who cares for your child to wash their hands frequently, especially if they are showing some of the early signs of enterovirus infection.

As enteroviruses typically manifest in the spring and fall, we should start to see a decline as we move toward winter. But, before you get too comfortable, flu season is upon us. The above tips are useful not only for EV-D68, but for any contagious viral illness including the flu. The CDC reports more than 100 children died from complications of the influenza virus last year alone. Invest in hand soap and continue to annoy your kids about germ spreading behaviors. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.



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Artificial Turf — does it cause cancer?

As if we parents didn’t have enough to worry about with Ebola and enterovirus D-68 making headlines, now we have to worry about the risk of cancer from playing soccer. Amy Griffin, the associate head coach for the University of Wisconsin’s women’s soccer team, brought forward her concern of there being a link between artificial turf and cancer. She compiled a list of 38 American soccer players diagnosed with cancer, mostly blood cancers like lymphoma and leukemia. 34 of them are goalies, who spend the most time on the ground. The Today Show picked up the story and more reports of cancer are coming in, as per their follow up piece. I’m the mom of kids who love soccer and lacrosse. Now what?

I’ve always hated those little black pellets, which get dragged into the house by my kids after they play on artificial turf, but only because I hated having to clean them up. Now, we have may have other things to worry about.

The pellets, called crumb rubber, have been used for years to soften artificial turf, which used to be like carpet on concrete, providing little cushioning and resulting in many injuries. The new technology mimics the real thing much more closely, but relies on ground up tires for the authenticity. Tires contain lots of chemicals, which are deemed safe when it comes to road use, but which haven’t been extensively studied in terms of risk when they are inhaled, ingested or lodged in cuts and scrapes. On hot days, the rubber can actually leach chemical gases into the air, which are then breathed in by athletes. Is the turf carcinogenic?

According to the Synthetic Turf Council, there are 11,000 artificial turf fields in the U.S. and crumb rubber is also used on lots of playgrounds. Benefits of artificial turf include cost efficiency, decreased use of natural resources like water, recycling of rubber, no pesticides on the field, and a consistent playing surface despite the weather.

Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) did do research into the safety of the fields about five years ago. Both admit these studies are limited, and neither seems to be inclined to do more research, considering it a local and state issue. There are alternatives to crumb rubber, such as cork  and Flexsand.

I was watching my daughter’s soccer game on artificial turf this past weekend. Normally, I watch and worry about ankles and concussion, but this time, when a player went down, I couldn’t help but think, “Don’t breathe in.” On top of this, I had my four year old twin boys with me, who are more like monkeys than children when given space to play. They were rolling on the turf and coming up with crumb rubber in their noses, their hair and their mouths. A week ago, happy they were entertaining themselves, so I could watch the game, I would’ve said, “We’d better shake all that out before we get in the car.” This time, I told them to stop playing numerous times, made them blow their noses and swish and spit water.

I pride myself on not being an alarmist, but when I really think about this issue, I am concerned. I’m not in panic mode because I know there are some studies suggesting it is safe, I know 13 million kids play soccer in the U.S., and about 16,000 kids get cancer every year. Blood cancers are the most common, and as far as I can tell, there has not been an increase in incidence since the use of artificial turf with crumb rubber. This is all reassuring, but as a mom, I can’t help but worry a little bit, especially when I see their faces covered in black specks, made from essentially unregulated materials. I am at least worried enough to have them shake out their clothes and shoes outside, shower after playing on turf and instruct them to avoid, best they can, inhaling or ingesting the pellets. You shouldn’t make your children paranoid, but if you think they can handle it, simply tell them the black stuff isn’t good to eat or breathe. You don’t have to go into detail.

Like Amy Griffin and soccer parents everywhere, I am hoping someone steps up and does the research. Griffin said in the Today Show interview, she would love to be proven wrong. I would love that too.


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Crazy Mom Has a New Name

Social Engineering! That’s it. It has a name. I am so relieved, because for years I’ve been calling it,

“That crazy thing moms do when they care way too much about their daughter’s* popularity, and they get involved in every detail, and are living vicariously through their child, and are choreographing her social life in a sad attempt to make up for their own disappointing adolescence.”

That’s quite a mouthful, so I was very grateful when a friend sent me this post recently in which Lisa Barr at GirlillaWarfare names this particular kind of insanity. To be fair, we all have a little crazy mom in us. We want our children to be well-liked and included socially. We don’t want them to be on the receiving end of the random, hurtful punishments passed out by Queen Bees. We want to protect them from any pain and disappointment, even though we know these are normal, necessary parts of growing up.

But, how far will we go to ensure their popularity? At what point does wanting the best for your child get warped into a sad Social Engineering experiment, where the lines between caring and meddling get blurred? In her post, Barr references a situation where a mom went on the school bus and literally saved seats for her daughter and the “in-crowd.” Most of us would agree this fits the crazy category, but it doesn’t have to be this obvious to be damaging. Popularity is a misguided goal for your child to have, and when you share this goal for her, the message you send is dangerous.

When you are a parent who thinks it is your responsibility to create a social life for your child, where does it end? You can buy them the same clothes the cool kids are wearing — at any cost. You can organize outings and sleepovers. You can hand pick the kids they spend time with. You can try to make friends with the parents of the children in the “popular group.” Now, with the advent of Instagram, Snapchat and the like, you can even micromanage their online presence, and help them brand themselves in a way designed to get the most Likes — the number of Likes, after all, being the new holy grail of popularity.

Or, here’s a thought. You can back off the social stuff and just be a parent. You can focus on teaching your child the skills she will need to be successful and respected in the real world. You can emphasize kindness and de-emphasize popularity. You can focus on character building and discourage social media profile building. You can create a home environment where your daughter feels safe and loved unconditionally, not one where she feels judged and scrutinized. I cannot imagine being raised by a mother obsessed with popularity, with no safe haven away from the intense social pressures of adolescence. Your child does not need another friend, she needs a mother. I believe if “Good Mom” was a job, and there was a list of duties, no where on that list would be Social Engineer.

*I hear the same madness goes on in boy groups. Just something else for me to look forward to on this tumultuous parenting ride.

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Why Does it Seem Breast Cancer is on the Rise?

October is breast cancer awareness month, and unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand, you know the scary statistics. 1 in 8 women in the United States will get breast cancer. 1 in 8! There are 6 chambers in a revolver. Imagine someone asked you to play Russian Roulette! The odds of pulling the trigger on the bullet aren’t much worse than a woman’s odds of getting cancer of the breast. Luckily, and thanks to years of scientific research, the outcome holds much more hope. Breast cancer is no longer akin to a bullet to the head. Yet, as I hear of more and more women I know receiving this horrendous diagnosis, I am starting to feel like this is just a game of odds.

And, if it is just a game of chance, doesn’t it feel like the odds are much worse for us than they were a generation or two ago? According to the Susan G. Komen organization, breast cancer increased a little over 1% from the 1940s to the 1980s, but then rose quickly into the 1990s. Experts attribute this rise to increased screening. Reports say incidence has since leveled off. But, at 41 years old, it doesn’t feel like that to me.

There has been much speculation about what causes breast cancer, and specifically, what caused it to rise. Everything, from pollution to plastic to diet coke to underwire bras, has been scrutinized, but none have been proven to increase risk. Yet it feels as if we are doing something wrong, because why else do we know so many women who have cancer? When you start to panic, and start worrying about what you should be changing, consider this:

- survival has improved enormously, so there are more women living with, not dying from, breast cancer

- life expectancy has increased, and risk for breast cancer increases with age … older women = more breast cancer

- women are having fewer children, often at older ages, and pregnancy does offer some protective benefit against breast cancer. However, prevention is not a great reason to have a baby, so there’s nothing you can change here.

- breast cancer detection is better, resulting in increased numbers of diagnoses. These early diagnoses are saving lives.

- we are no longer ashamed to use the word BREAST — or CANCER, for that matter. Your parents’ generation wasn’t wearing pink ribbons and exposing bald heads to raise awareness.

A big part of the reason you feel like there is more breast cancer, is because we are talking about it. Thank God for this conversation — it is saving lives.

Stop worrying about the things you cannot change. Based on the current evidence, what can you do to prevent breast cancer?

- maintain a healthy weight
- exercise
- enjoy a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables
- drink alcohol in moderation (or, not at all – OUCH!)
- see your doctor and stay current on your recommended screening exams

*there is ongoing research about how working night shifts may increase risk, but before you quit your night job, I suggest giving the evidence time to sort itself out.

Posted in Cancer, Inside, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Will You Let Your Son Play Football?

Three high school football players died last week. One is proven to be related to a hit he sustained on the field, the other two are under investigation, but all signs point to football related head injury as the cause.  On average 12 kids die each year on the football field or as a direct result of this hobby. I realize a lot of children play football, but still … 12 kids dead every year? Seem like an awful lot to me.

The majority of these deaths are due to dehydration and heat exhaustion, and happen in the South, where double practices, in full pads and high temperatures are common. Shame on them. Is a winning season worth a young life? Clearly these tragedies are avoidable. Some deaths are due to pre-existing heart conditions, which likely wouldn’t manifest fatally without the level of physical intensity demanded by the sport. The rest are due to head injuries.

Aside from the fatalities, the injuries sustained by football players are unnervingly common. You can try to forget about knees and shoulders, at least these shouldn’t impair a young man for life. Let’s talk about concussion. A high school football player has a 75% chance of getting a concussion. Once you’ve had one concussion, you are twice as, if not more, likely to have a second one. Concussions have been on the rise in recent years, and those I speak to who are in the know, believe this is due to the game being taught and played differently. Tack onto this risk all the head injury you can’t measure — all the small hits which don’t cause any major, visible damage, but which cause repeated damage on the cellular level. Consider the rage issues, dementia and personality problems career football players have. It may be America’s game, and it may be exciting, but is it worth it to let your child play?

If my boys want to play football, and I pray they won’t, will I let them engage in an extra-curricular activity that carries with it a chance, albeit a small one, of death? Will I allow them to play a sport in which they literally lead with their head. Sure, football players get to be the tough-guy boys of fall. They get the girls. They get the glory. I think I’d rather my boys get the grades and get out of high school in one piece.

So, what will I say if they beg to play this sport — a sport, by the way, I’ve always loved to watch? I don’t know. They are only four years old, so I have some time. The doctor in me, who understands the fragility of the human brain and a growing body, wants to say, “Hell, NO.” But, who knows what the American mom in me will say if the time comes? I’ve learned to never say never when it comes to raising kids. For now, I’ll just have to hope they develop an interest in music or academia. Teens don’t often drop dead in band, and no one’s brain capacity ever suffered from too much time spent in a classroom.

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